Why Aren't There Entrepreneurs in the Knesset?

High-profile examples like Naftali Bennett aside, surprisingly few businesspeople go into Israeli politics.

What is the most underrepresented minority in the Knesset? No, it's not Arabs or homosexuals, who face plenty of discrimination. Nor is it disabled people, who are largely absent from the halls of power. It's a minority so neglected that no one even notices it or its absence – businesspeople.

A quick count found that there are just six members of the 19th Knesset who built their reputations in business. Among them are two men who held prominent management positions: Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid), a former chairman of the Mizrahi Bank (and a former head of the Shin Bet security service) and Yair Shamir (Yisrael Beiteinu), formerly chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries and of the National Roads Company (and a high officer in the air force); three successful high-tech entrepreneurs: Erel Margalit (Labor), Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), and Basil Jitas (Balad) – owner of the Arabic-language economic magazine Malkum.

All six men are new Knesset members, who did not serve in the 18th Knesset. Thus, they have increased by hundreds of percentage points the number of MKs representing the business world. Looking at the glass as half full, the business world has gained a modicum of representation that it previously lacked. Looking at the glass as half empty, the six businesspeople-Knesset members still make up only 5 percent of the body.

Where's our Mitt?

For the sake of comparison, 108 business people serve in the United States House of Representatives, constituting 25 percent of its members. They are the second largest group in the House, after lawyers, and way ahead of all other professions (the rest of the list, in descending size order, goes professional politicians, educators, medical professionals, former members of the military, social activists and members of the media). Similarly, 20 of the U.S.'s 100 senators are businesspeople, again second only to lawyers and way ahead of all other professional groups.

It's not just Congress where businesspeople are at the heart of American politics. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also built his reputation as a powerful businessperson.

Similar statistics aren’t available for European parliaments, but it suffices to mention former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who was a prominent wheeler-dealer even while in office.

It's natural that businesspeople should take part in political activity. They are experienced professionals, who understand economics and management and can contribute their knowledge and experience to the political management of their country. They are also people who have already made money and can afford to devote time and energy to public service. In the U.S., businesspeople see going into politics as a public mission, a new challenge and perhaps even a chance to leave a mark on history.

Of course, presumably there are also cases where businesspeople enter politics out a narrow desire to make connections that could serve them later in their private affairs. But this does not appear to be the predominant reason people make the switch.

Compared to these other countries, Jerusalem is an arid wilderness when it comes to business people working in public service in general and politics in particular. There are almost no businesspeople in government, public positions or the Knesset. It isn't that they failed to get the jobs; it's that they don't even bother to try. The impression is that in Israel, business people prefer to enrich themselves and their families and are uninterested in doing anything for their nation.

Why? Most of the businesspeople-Knesset members didn’t want to answer the question. This is probably because they think the label of "businessperson" is likely to hurt them politically. In contrast to the United States, where management experience is considered an asset, in Israel every wealthy person is by definition a capitalist pig, making such experience a liability.

“Israeli society is envious and not complimentary,” Erel Margalit of the Labor Party said. “Successful people don’t get embraced – and therefore they also don’t come.”

An unwelcoming place

Another possible reason that Israeli businesspeople stay away from politics is that the way the Knesset works offers them no relative advantage.

“Shlomo Eliahu and also Stef Wertheimer were Knesset members,” says Uriel Linn, a former Likud MK and current head of the Chamber of Commerce. “Both of them failed. They didn’t do well with the public work, the shouting, the criticism and the fact that in the Knesset everyone is equal. Anyone who goes into a committee, and it makes no difference whether previously he was a lowly political party hack or a successful businessman, gets exactly the same say. The Knesset is an arena of 120 wrestlers and whoever wrestles hardest survives – not necessarily the smartest or the most serious person. This isn’t suited to businesspeople.”

Manufacturers Association head Zvika Oren agrees that “businesspeople like to take decisions and to influence. In the Knesset, it isn’t at all clear what your ability to influence will be and whether it justifies the tremendous effort entailed in going through the agonies of the primaries process.”

Oren sees the dearth of businesspeople in politics as a major missed opportunity, saying “Our best sons should serve in politics – and this doesn’t happen.”

Linn, though, doesn’t see it as much of a loss, since “the culture of the Knesset simply isn’t suited to businesspeople.”

Some people go further, suggesting that politics is better off without businesspeople, because they're likely to serve outside interests.

“Why aren’t there serious businesspeople in the Knesset Why aren’t there serious people in general in the Knesset, like researchers from academia?” asked one anonymous and very frustrated source. “It’s the system in which the only way to enter politics is to bribe vote contractors or to be the servant to wealthy masters who can finance your campaign. The process does not make it possible for decent people to get elected to the Knesset or to exert influence within it – and those who get there are only the corrupt or people imbued with messianic faith.”

Margalit thinks otherwise. “We don’t need businesspeople as such in the Knesset,” he says. “We need entrepreneurs, who will change the rules of the political game just as they have changed the rules of the economic game."

The rules of the game appear set for now, with entrepreneurs, Israel's most important force for change, making up a tiny minority of the Knesset.

Olivier Fitoussi